My Earliest NASCAR Adventure
By: Guest Writer - Jonathan Angove
I DM’d Patty (Twitter talk for “Direct Message) over the weekend and expressed interest in her open invitation to write. I have no experience and haven’t had to write any kind of paper since college, which was close to 20 years ago as I write this, having recently turned 40. Everyone has opinions on this or that and most are both valid and invalid at the same time and perhaps I’ll opine next time, if there is a next time, but I decided to touch on my first adventure as a NASCAR fan at the track.
Growing up in a non-NASCAR family I was the one that got everyone else interested. My earliest memories of watching are from the mid to late 1980s when DW, Rusty, and Dale were King and the King was not. More on that another time.
I listened to an MRN recap of the 1993 NASCAR Winton Cup season this morning as I got a pre-dawn walk in (I’d recommend the MRN podcast, not the walk). The episode I listened to this morning was #7 and the primary focus of the segment had to do with the passing of Davey Allison. I remember that time very well and it was a very sad time in NASCAR in general.
It did get me to thinking of the first race that I would ever attend later on that season at Martinsville. What is so vivid about that is two-fold. First, being a DW fan, his early spin in turn 2 never left my mind, I kept hearing “trouble in turn 2” over the next week. The second being that was the first race that Ernie Irvan would win in the famed RYR #28 car vacated by Davey’s untimely death.
I’ll never forget the Virginia native in the stands down by the catch fence holding up a sign that said “Come Back 4 Ernie.” For those that do not remember, Ernie had left the Morgan McClure Racing bright yellow #4 Chevrolet to drive the Ford for Robert Yates. At this time in the sport, just like the Wood Brothers were and still are, Morgan McClure Racing based just down the road in Abington, Virginia was an institution especially in SW Virginia. Everyone from within 100 miles of Abington considered this their hometown team even if you liked another driver more. A lot of people were disappointed and perhaps even angry and upset at the in-season decision Ernie made to leave Morgan McClure Racing. He had already racked up 7 top 5’s and a win that season before he left. The team had stuck by and helped Ernie grow and learn through controversy that earned him the nickname “Swervin Irvan.”
This race would largely be one of those races most fans remember, if not for it being their first race then for the circumstance surrounding the 28 rising up from the devastation faced earlier this year. Ernie Irvan and the 28 Ford dominated that race from start to finish. There was never any doubt and barely any drama. I looked backed at the box score this afternoon and saw that Ernie led 402 of the 500 laps at the half mile Virginia paperclip.
The 1993 season in NASCAR is a particular one that changed the trajectory of the sport in so many different ways. It got me thinking of some events that transpired over the next decade as a direct result of what happened during the course of the 1993 season.
First let’s take a look at one of the direct impacts, the 28 car and what happened there. Fast Forward to summer a year later where Ernie Irvan was battling tooth and nail for the points champion with eventual Champion Dale Earnhardt. Going into the 21st race of the season at Michigan Irvan trailed Earnhardt by a mere 27 points after a second place finish the week before at the winding road course of Watkins Glen in upstate New York. Irvan was practicing Saturday morning for the Sunday race at Michigan when a right front tire went down and caused Irvan to hit the outside retaining while as he was accelerating coming off turn two of the 2 mile oval. The Robert Yates Racing team withdrew from competition that week but would return 2 races later with Kenny Wallace behind the wheel at Bristol. Ernie Irvan did eventually recover enough to return to competition but he never did seem to have the same fire after the 1994 crash. He did return to the #28 Ford in the 1995 to run 3 races. Irvan recovered enough to eventually win 3 more times in the 1996 and 1997 season. The last win of his career would come at that same Michigan track to nearly took his life 3 years earlier. In a cruel twist of fate at that same Michigan track that nearly took his life, it ended his career when he slammed into the turn 4 wall while practicing for the Busch series companion event. Ernie never would return to competition following that crash. Dale Earnhardt would win the 1994 points Championship in an overwhelming fashion. His closest competitor was Mark Martin 444 points back when the season ended at Atlanta. One can’t help but think what might have been for the career and legacy of Ernie Irvan however.
Dale Jarrett was tapped by Robert Yates to drive the 28 car in 1995 while Ernie was still sidelined following his 1994 crash. Dale Jarrett was an accomplished driving in his own right having won 3 races before joining the Yates team, including the 1993 Daytona 500 while driving the green #18 for Joe Gibbs Racing. In 1996 when Ernie Irvan returned to the #28 car, Dale Jarret moved to the newly formed #88 blue Quality Care Ford that Robert Yates started when Ernie was well enough to return. Dale Jarret would be a fixture at the top of the NASCAR standings for the next 6 seasons(1996-2001)winning 24 times and finishing in the top 5 in standing each year including the 1999 Championship, cementing his legacy as one of the top drivers in the sport’s history. In the late 1990s it seemed that every race I went to, Jarret or Jeff Gordon would win.
Dale Jarret leaving a winning race organization left a sought after vacancy that landed at the feet of Bobby Labonte to pilot the #18 car most weeks sponsored by Interstate Batteries. Prior to joining Joe Gibbs Racing Labonte had success in the Busch series, winning that championship in 1991 and finishing 2nd in 1992. He had 2 seasons of Winston Cup experience under his belt, having driven the #22 Ford for Bill Davis racing, but had yet to experience any success, having only finished in the top 5 once. The combination of Bobby and crew chief Jimmy Makar showed immediate promise with 2 second places finishes in the first 4 races before eventually winning the Coke 600 in May. Bobby would go on to win 2 more races in 1995 including the season ending race at Atlanta where his brother, Terry was crowned the 1995 Winston Cup Champion. Bobby would continue to have success winning races and placing in the top 5 in the latter half of the 1990s before eventually winning the Winston Cup a year after Dale Jarret, in 2000.
In concluding this it would seem that NASCAR in many ways very much mirrors life. Where one chapter closes, another begins. Where one road ends, other begins. The 1993 season, very much like life, had challenges and tragedy but everything does move on. Within each tragedy remains the opportunity to triumph.